It’s now that time that occurs once every four years when soccer actually becomes popular in America. And like many of my peers, I will pay marginally more attention to soccer than usual by watching the occasional highlights on SportsCenter. But the World Cup is much more than just a soccer tournament — it’s a huge investment in South Africa that will have enormous economic and sociopolitical impact. And in a nerdy way so typical of University students, I think these results of the Cup will be much more interesting than whether Spain can fend off Brazil or France.

Let’s delve into the numbers. According to an estimate made by the consulting firm Grant Thornton, the World Cup will infuse South Africa’s economy with $7.6 billion, attract 490,000 tourists and create or save 415,000 yearlong jobs. But these are just the resultant benefits — there are many costs as well. South Africa built ten new state-of-the-art soccer stadiums at a hefty price tag, and they will also absorb increased costs from construction, beautification and labor. As noted by Rob Baade, an economic analyst of major sporting events, the construction and beautification process has historically lowered the revenues of many local businesses prior to the World Cup due to general infrastructure disruption.

Ultimately, both critics and advocates of the World Cup as an economic boon agree that the impact will depend on how everything plays out. If the event can create a spike in tourism and security that sustains itself for the following years, then it will ultimately be a success. If the World Cup turns away potential non-Cup-related tourists and only provides a temporary boost, then it will hurt the South African economy. More significantly, many experts both from inside and outside of South Africa argue that the money invested into the World Cup could have been invested into social problems, like the high HIV/AIDS rate, and debate whether the revenue from the World Cup will allow for greater social spending.

With that said, while I don’t have access to a crystal ball — or an accurate calculus-based model — that can predict the long-term consequences of the World Cup, just a few years ago Detroit hosted the world cup of “real” football, and its long- term impact can be seen today. Detroit directly made $125 million from the Super Bowl from the estimated $100 million of public and private money spent on preparation costs.

While the economic impact of the Super Bowl definitely helped Detroit in the short term, there seems to have been no sustained benefit. Today, Detroit still has unfinished and postponed construction and beautification projects, which all have maintenance costs in addition to the initial Super Bowl preparation costs. Making matters worse, they create eyesores that hurt the perception of Detroit by suburbanites and tourists, which harms property values.

Detroit’s economy invariably suffered from the massive recession that struck the nation as a whole, so the Super Bowl cannot be blamed for its downward spiral. Yet while the event may not have objectively hurt the city, it certainly didn’t help. The recession still ravaged the unemployment rate, with unemployment in the Detroit-Warren-Livonia area rising from 7.2 percent in February 2006, the month of the Super Bowl, to 15.5 percent in March 2010. And tourism in Detroit has hardly taken off in the last four years, with most news sources still citing Detroit as one of the top five most dangerous cities in the country. At best, the Super Bowl slightly stimulated the economy of Detroit, only for its benefit to be neutralized by the recession. At worst, it hurt the city by creating unsustainable infrastructure projects and not providing any new, long-term jobs.

Like Detroit, South Africa is plagued by a high crime and unemployment rate. I hope that South Africa, unlike Detroit, will be able to sustain whatever benefits it can reap from the World Cup and that its tourism industry, already a pillar of its economy, will grow exponentially once the last goal is scored.

Eric Stulberg can be reached at estul@umich.edu.

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